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‘There’s no such thing as a dumb footballer’ – Academy Head of Education explains role

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There’s no end to the attention given to Academy players in the modern game. Individually tailored training, physiotherapy, video analysis, psychology, nutrition – the list goes on. But there’s a hugely important aspect that’s often overlooked.

It is easy to forget that these aren’t yet professional footballers, but youngsters still at school. Their future is by no means guaranteed, and whether they make it to the very top or not an education is vital. Rowan Griffiths is the man to provide that.

“What are you going to do when football ends?” he says, speaking just around the corner from the state-of-the-art classrooms at the new Academy facility. “It’s not if football ends. You could play 500 games in the Premier League, but football is going to end.

“You might have millions in the bank – fantastic, brilliant, really happy for you. But are you going to be healthy and happy and content just playing golf all day? If you are, brilliant, but I’d like to think they got to that level because of the challenge, and they still want to work and still want to achieve.

“That’s why we’ve got ex-Premier League players working with us now. They’re here because they’ve got a passion to work and to achieve. Hopefully, even if the players are successful they’ll want to do something else in another life.

“You finish at 36 and hopefully you’ve got that amount of time and more to live again. So that’s what we’re trying to build into the thought process.”

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You might have millions in the bank - but are you going to be content just playing golf all day?

Rowan Griffiths

Griffiths has his own motto for the young players. “I use the phrase healthy distraction,” he explains.

“For me, there’s only three or four hours a day you can be a footballer. What else are you going to fill your day with? What else is going to keep you excited?

“My background is in athletics, and I’ve worked with Olympic and World [Championship] athletes. There are only so many hours they can be athletes – but traditionally athletic individuals have gone to university during their prime years of performance in the lead up.

“That’s their healthy distraction. For scholars and Under-23s, they are footballers and there is no traditional avenue of building up the rest of the working day. They come in, they train, they go home.

“We’re trying to make them think differently about their working day.”

It starts early on – Griffiths oversees the education of all ages from eight-years-old onwards. Regular contact is kept with primary schools to check in with students and offer support. But it is at secondary school that the real work begins.

“Starting in year seven – so Under-12s – we speak to the schools about how they have transitioned from primary to secondary, and how intense that becomes on top of their training weeks,” he says.

“Under-13s is when we start our hybrid programme. They come out two afternoons each week, and that’s an agreement with schools, parents and ourselves. We transport them to the Academy, where they do additional training, but we also do teaching in the classroom environment.

“The schools can ask us to cover certain subjects or certain topics, and again that’s about not making their education suffer due to being part of the Academy system.”

At the age where most students are moving into sixth-form, the Palace Academy youngsters are moving into a far more intense schedule.

“Our scholars technically become our students within school, even though we’re not a school,” Griffiths explains. “We’re wholly responsibly for their achievement and attainment here. They will all do a BTEC qualification as a norm, and some will do an A-Level – or even two A-Levels – on top of that.

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Joe Sheridan did a full maths A-Level in one year via Zoom and got an A, whilst being full-time with the U18s.

Rowan Griffiths

“They are very high achieving students. Last year, five of the boys finished their A-Levels in the summer. One of our second year scholars, Joe Sheridan, did a full maths A-Level in one year via Zoom and got an A, whilst being full-time with the Under-18s.

“So the perception that footballers aren’t clever is completely untrue. We’ve got politics students, economics, arts, business and media students all doing A-Levels on top of a BTEC diploma.”

After the age of 18, there is no legal requirement for the players to continue with their education. But Griffiths is keen to change the collective mindset, encouraging further education as a positive opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands.

“What we’re trying to do with the Under-23s is extend that learning on offer,” he explains. “It’s a slow burner, because there has not been a traditional expectation that they do more education.

“There’s a new Head of Education at the Premier League called Dave Rainford, and his new target is to extend learning to the Under-23s. But at the minute they finish their scholar and get offered a pro [contract], and there’s a perception they’re professional footballers now, why would they need to?

“It’s about unpicking that mentality”

Under-18s defender Joe Sheridan
Under-18s defender Joe Sheridan

Part of that process is demonstrating to the players that their education can open doors for them within the game, giving them opportunities to make real progress on the pitch.

“At the minute the boys are doing language courses to help them if they go on loan abroad,” Griffiths reveals. “Reece Hannam and Scott Banks are the two Under-23s who have been pushing on this.

“Reece is learning Spanish and Scott is learning French. It is thinking about their opportunities and their options. I think Joe Hart went to play in Italy a few years ago and tried to give his first press conference in Italian.

“It wasn’t the greatest Italian, but he had a go and the fans really warmed to him because he had taken the time and effort to do it.”

But off the pitch it is important too. Griffiths firmly believes that a comprehensive education is crucial to developing as a character and a personality.

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At the minute the boys are doing language courses to help them if they go on loan abroad.

Rowan Griffiths

“I think it makes them better players, I really do,” he says. “But it’s so good for them to have a passion elsewhere. When it comes to media interviews, it gives them something to talk about rather than the common phrases ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘to be fair’.

“They’ve got something else to talk about. One of our second year scholars, Jadan Raymond, is incredibly talented and has a massive passion for art and graphic design – and he is very good at it.

“He is an incredible artist. I can imagine that is a brilliant step away from all the pressures he had. He’s had a lot of focus playing for Wales, playing at a very high level and scoring goals for the Under-18s.”

Now 15 months into the job, Griffiths is already seeing his hard work come to fruition – a process that is incredibly rewarding.

“The stats from last summer about A-level and BTEC grades are significantly above average for boys in all areas,” he says proudly. “I know you’re getting smaller classes and smaller teaching groups, but there is no such thing as a dumb footballer.

“The boys’ working week for some of them here is way above what their peers are doing in sixth form. As a sixth former you might have one or two lessons on some days – these boys are in six days a week doing their training.

“Some of them are doing eight hours of A-Levels on top of nine hours of BTECs. They’re eating well, travelling distances. They’re sacrificing being a teenager.

“They make a huge amount of sacrifices, and they are such nice lads. Really professional, really nice. They’re having a great experience, no matter what the outcome is.

“I hope if and when they leave that they look back and are grateful for the opportunity that the chairman has provided them.”

It’s no easy task balancing the pressures of youth football with schoolwork and exams, but Rowan Griffiths and his team at the Academy are doing all they can to ease the process – while encouraging players to take more opportunities on the way.

It’s a tough road, but for this new generation of Palace youngsters the future looks bright.